Indian, now Qatari, painter M.F. Husain (via AFP)

Last month, Artinfo reported that:

… celebrated Indian painter M.F. Husain has been shuttling between Dubai and London in self-imposed exile after leaving his country amid harsh attacks from conservative Hindus, who consider his depictions of nude goddesses to be sacrilegious. Now the Qatari government has offered Husain citizenship …

Both of these images depict the same subject, (left) one by a more traditional Indian artist, and the other (right) by M. F. Husain, which is one of his controversial works that caused outrage among some Hindu nationalists.

According to Agence France Presse, Maqbool Fida Husain accepted the Qatari offer.

The controversy began in 1996, when, according to Wikipedia, when they were printed in Vichar Mimansa, a Hindi monthly magazine, which published them in an article headlined “M.F. Husain: A Painter or Butcher.” As a result, eight criminal complaints were filed against Husain, who is a Shiite Muslim of the Suleimanis sect, and some Hindu nationalists made his provocative paintings of Hindu deities a major issue.

Often referred to as India’s Picasso (though I don’t really understand why), Husain’s case — after a little bit of digging — doesn’t seem as straightforward as it is often presented.

When the New York Times tackled Husain’s story in 2008, they tried to explain away the reason for his depiction of nude Hindu deities:

Husain insists that nudity symbolizes purity. He has repeatedly said that he had not meant to offend any faith.

But the same article tries to support their premise that he isn’t offending one faith alone with the fact that he has offended Muslims too:

But one of his paintings, showing a donkey — to the artist, a symbol of nonviolence — at Mecca, created a ruckus among his fellow Muslims.

The problem is that the the two (nude Hindu deities, donkey in Mecca) aren’t exactly comparable. One ignited a national campaign that included his house being vandalized and artworks being attacked, while the other involved more localized grumblings.

One recent writer on a Wall Street Journal blog served as an apologist for Husain and wrote that people’s questioning of Husain’s motive for the move as suspicious, particularly to a country that is not a democracy, is irrelevant. I disagree, I think it is very relevant.

According to a columnist for the Hindustan TimesVir Sanghvi, there may be a double-standard at work and some religious Muslim’s — though not all — are being hypocrites in regards to artistic censorship. Sanghvi writes:

Try looking at the Husain saga through the prism of secular double standards.
Our position as liberals is that an artist has the freedom to paint what he likes. If some Hindus are offended by Husain’s nude Saraswatis, then they can simply look away. They have no right to restrict his creativity or to deny the rest of us the opportunity to view Husain’s work.
But sceptics (all of whom are not necessarily Muslim-haters or communalists) frequently ask the obvious follow-up question: how would we have responded if Husain had painted Muslim religious figures in the nude?
The answer is an uncomfortable one. Even if he had painted the Prophet, fully clothed and portrayed with respect, we would not have risen to Husain’s defence with the same vigour. We would have said “Islam prohibits visual representations of the Prophet so Husain should not have offended Muslims”.
That answer weakens our claims about artistic freedom. Why should Husain’s creative abilities be hampered by some Quranic injunction? Why should non-believers be bound by the dictates of believers? Why do we campaign so hard for Husain and yet condemn the Danish cartoonist who offended Islamists?

So, what do you think the chances of Husain painting images of Mohammad or nude portraits of his wives are? Back in 2008, the New York Times reported that he was working on a series on Arab civilization, which was to be exhibited in Qatar, I assume it already was. What makes me think that there were no nudes in the series?

While I don’t support censorship of any kind, I think it’s really disturbing that Husain chose Qatar, which regularly censors everything, as his home rather than remain in democratic India.

According to a 2009 report by Canadian OpenNet Initiative, which monitors online censorship:

The censors in Qatar admit to filtering pornography, political criticism of Gulf countries, and material deemed hostile to Islam. The authorities also pervasively filter gay and lesbian content, sexual health resources, and privacy and circumvention tools. Political filtering is highly selective, but journalists self-censor on sensitive issues such as government policies, Islam, and the ruling family.

I admit I’m disturbed by M. F. Husain’s move. I know he’s probably looking for a lovely place to retire, some place that will treat him like a king, but this leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I take the values of democracy too seriously and the thought of a creative person who has greatly benefited from freedom — even if that has come with the bitter sting of public protests and legal problems — would choose a repressive autocratic state over a democratic one is just too much for me.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

2 replies on “Complex Cultural Politics of Indian, now Qatari, Painter M. F. Husain”

  1. Hrag, it’s refreshing to see such a long article about someone from outside the New York orbit. Just a few questions if you have time/wish to answer.

    A. What’s in it for Qatar to offer him citizenship? Did you come across any explanation for why they are offering him this deal?

    B. Do you know how severe the attacks are against M.F. Husain? Is he concerned about his physical safety in India? Or is he not credibly endangered and just tired of heated rhetoric ruffling his feathers?



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